Use of structure in Great Expectations

The structure of a text refers to the way in which events are organised inside the novel as a whole. In the case of Great Expectations, the structure is chronological where events are told to the reader in the order in which they have happened. However, the structure is also that of a flashback where the older and wiser Pip looks back at his earlier life.


Before being published as a complete novel in 1861, Great Expectations first appeared in serial form in a weekly magazine. To make sure that his readers kept coming back for more, Dickens often used cliffhanger endings for each part to keep the audience guessing as to what might happen next. It is a technique that is often used today in soap operas.

But, I ran no further than the house door, for there I ran head foremost into a party of soldiers with their muskets: one of whom held out a pair of handcuffs to me saying, "Here you are, look sharp, come on!"Pip, at the end of episode two of the original serial

This extract comes right at the end of the original episode two of the serial. The theft of Mrs Joe's pie is just about to be discovered and the guilty Pip makes a run for it only to crash into some soldiers holding out handcuffs. Is Pip just about to be arrested? Will he get away? What has become of the runaway convict on the marshes? These and other questions will keep us coming back for more.

Three stages

Another way of looking at structure in Great Expectations is to think about the three stages in Pip's life. These might be called: childhood, youth and maturity. As Pip goes through these various stages his character alters and changes so that he goes on not just a physical 'journey' but also an emotional one. These stages are linked to other aspects of the novel such as themes and settings.

Working classUpper classMiddle class
The countryLondonLondon/the country

Examining structure

Examining structure in a text can also refer to looking at the writer's deliberate arrangement of sentences and paragraphs. This is known as syntax. Here is an example of how such a piece of text might be analysed:

"Hold your noise!" cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. "Keep still, you little devil, or I'll cut your throat!" A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin. Magwitch's first moments in the novel
  • Magwitch is introduced by a piece of dialogue. We hear him before we see him.
  • The use of exclamation marks tells us that he is fierce and threatening.
  • 'Fearful' comes at the start of a paragraph which gives it extra importance.
  • 'Fearful' also has a double meaning:
    • Magwitch is a terrible sight and frightens Pip
    • Magwitch himself is frightened and is therefore desperate
  • The word 'and' is used repeatedly as the young Pip notices more and more detail.
  • The number of commas used allows Dickens to write a long complex sentence which keeps the pace going and builds tension.